Return of the caudillo

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Was that a US president speaking? The removal from office of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on June 28 was “illegal,” said US President Barack Obama, “He was democratically elected,” he said in a television interview, “and is the legitimate president of Honduras.”

Obama alluded to the danger of Latin America’s returning to its “dark past” of right-wing military coups and dictatorships. But he didn’t call the removal of Zelaya a coup d’etat, which it was. Neither did he mention that Latin America’s “dark past” was largely the US’ doing, when it fomented, encouraged, and/or funded coups against any Latin American government that it thought threatened the interests of its multinationals, of which the most outstanding were American Telephone and Telegraph and United Fruit.

Contrast Obama’s statement with then US President Richard Nixon’s orders to the Central Intelligence Agency in 1970 when Salvador Allende was on the eve of winning the presidency of Chile: “Make the economy scream to prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.” And with that of then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, this time about respecting the results of the 1970 elections that put Allende in power: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

Encouraged and supported by the US as well as the local elite, the Chilean military seized control of the country on September 11, 1973, during which Allende died in the presidential palace in Chile’s capital, Santiago, most probably from the guns of military elements. Under the bogus presidency of army general Augusto Pinochet, the military unleashed a 17-year reign of terror during which it arrested, detained, tortured and killed thousands of men and women identified with Allende and opposed to dictatorship. The so-called “September 11 effect” demonstrated to all of Latin America that even the most repressive and brutal regime could count on US support so long as that regime protected US economic interests and prevented the rise of socialist, liberal or communist governments.

For decades prior to, during and after the Chilean terror, Latin America has been a hotbed of poverty under the rule of an elite protected by a military in the training of which the US plays a major role through the US Army’s School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. So notorious is the SOA it has since been renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but where selected military officers are still schooled in, among others, the fine arts of torture, disappearances and extra-judicial killings in furtherance of counter-insurgency. That Filipino officers too have been trained there should explain why the torturers and killers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines share with their counterparts in Latin America (and the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan) a common arsenal of torture and counter- insurgency methods.

The generals who led the Honduras coup not so-coincidentally studied in the School of the Americas. Coup leader General Romeo Vasquez attended the SOA in 1976 and 1984, while the head of the Honduras Air Force, General Luis Javier Suazo, is also an SOA alumnus who belongs to class 1996.

Aside from Honduras’ hosting a US military base, the Honduran military has had a long special relationship with the US through, among other contacts, the SOA. Over 50 Honduran officers accused of a range of human rights abuses from kidnapping to murder are SOA graduates.

At least two of the long line of military dictators or “caudillos” who have plagued Honduras for decades were also SOA graduates. SOA-trained General Juan Melgar Castro became the military dictator of Honduras in 1975. Another Honduras dictator was SOA graduate Policarpio Paz Garcia, during whose reign of terror from 1980-1982 a death squad founded by Honduran SOA graduates with the help of their Argentine SOA schoolmates, and one of the most feared in all of Latin America, kidnapped, tortured and murdered dissenters, activists and suspected rebels at will.

The Honduran military’s long relationship with the US, specifically with the SOA, whose mandate is to prevent the rise of leftist or liberal regimes in the Americas in behalf of multinational interests, helps explain the gap between Obama’s statement and the US’ refusal to call the June 28 kidnapping and expulsion of President Zelaya a coup. Doing so would compel the US, in accordance with the charter of the Organization of American States of which it is a leading signatory, to suspend all aid to the Honduras putschists and to demand the return to power of Zelaya. For all his liberal instincts, Obama is finding it difficult to resist the pressure of the US right wing in the corporations and the military not to oppose the coup beyond lip service to legality.

The Honduras crisis is thus emerging as a test for Obama: if the US does not withhold aid to Honduras and/or demand Zelaya’s restoration as the country’s duly elected president, it will send the same signal US intervention in Chile did in 1973 to the whole of Latin America– though with the modification that the US will at least not oppose military coups launched in behalf of local elite and US interests.

A sustainable Honduras coup could mean the return of the caudillo and of military dictatorships, and the demise of elections as the means of gaining power in the continent. Ironic that if that happens, it should take place during the watch of the one US president in a long while who has pledged to respect democracy and human rights both at home and abroad, and on whom the world has had such high hopes.

Much has been said by local commentators about the trigger of Zelaya’s ouster: his attempt to hold a referendum on the limits to presidential terms. It has been compared to similar efforts by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and celebrated as a triumph of mass opposition to the changes.

It is nothing of the kind. First, because the referendum was non-binding; second, because Zelaya was legally elected to his post, unlike someone we all know; and third, because the reason why the elite, through the corrupt Supreme Court and the military, ousted Zelaya was because they feared that the referendum results would go Zelaya’s way. Just because things seem the same doesn’t mean they are, and it’s a long way from Tegucigalpa to Manila.

(BusinessWorld)

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